Florence Writers Interview with Literary Agent James Wills

We asked our Publishing Day panellist Literary Agent James Wills a few questions before the big day, including what type of writing really stands out for him and what books he wishes he discovered.

James is Managing Director of Watson, Little Ltd, a leading UK literary agency that handles a wide range of fiction and non-fiction for adults and children. Founded in 1970, the agency represents bestselling and prize-winning authors and illustrators, including Evie Wyld, Alex Marwood, Christopher Fowler, Stephen Biesty, Margaret Mahy and Colin Wilson.
James has worked as an agent at Watson, Little for twelve years and has a reputation for finding exciting new talent, working in all forms of media, as well as furthering the careers of more established authors. He is passionate about reading and good writing: “I am looking for striking, quirky, character-driven, commercial and literary fiction that is thrilling, bold and beautifully written. My interests range from the decidedly off-beat to the unashamedly popular side of popular culture but I am always looking for writers with an edge who are experts in their fields.”

What makes a person’s writing stand out for you?

This is a good question but a hard one to answer. It’s an almost indescribable quality, a zing in the prose that instils confidence and wonder. We see so many unsolicited manuscripts which are perfectly good, but, frankly, good is not good enough. The ones that stand out must be, ahem, outstanding. They demand attention. Perhaps through a line by line brilliance, or a striking voice, a certain understated charm, but always with that special zing that grabs you and won’t let go.  

What are some books you wish you had discovered?

I’d loved to have discovered the brilliant DEAD trilogy by Adrian McKinty and HHhH by Laurent Binet (although to be fair my French is a tad rusty). I would also have been delighted to discover GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, or sell the pitch for THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes (time-travelling serial killer). I could go on and on but let’s also say THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, and HIS DARK MATERIALS by Phillip Pullman. But I’m also immensely proud of the debut authors I have found and I am always looking for the next amazing book that will make it on other agents’ “I wish I discovered” lists.

Who are some contemporary authors that you have been reading recently?

London Book Fair has seriously eaten into my reading time recently, but I much enjoyed THE POWER by Naomi Alderman, which is brilliant and shocking, like a subversive superhero story The Handmaid’s Tale. And I am very excited for my author Mahsuda Snaith’s debut, THE THINGS WE THOUGHT WE KNEW, which publishes in June. Mahsuda has recently been named as one of the Observer’s New Face of Fiction for 2017 and I can’t wait for people to read her amazing, hilarious, heartbreaking tale of a young girl with chronic pain syndrome. Mahsuda has been liked to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eimear McBride and Anne Tyler, which is very good contemporary author company to keep.

What kind of characters do you find most interesting to read?

I am drawn to characters with an edge, a darkness. I love an anti-hero, someone who is morally complex. But I also very drawn to humour and a character with a strong voice. If you can combine all these things, then I’m sold!

James will be on the panel at Florence Writers’ PUBLISHING DAY, 13th MAY 2017. Other panelists include Juliet Brooke (Editor, Penguin Random House), Marilyn Atlas (Literary Manager & Producer), Shannon Kirk (Author), as well as workshops with by David Gaughran (Self-Publishing/Promotion Expert).

Find out more about Florence Writers’ Publishing Day.

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